Carolyn Sponza: An Insider’s Look

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By Camila Atkins

During week two of the Women in Architecture Lecture series, Carolyn Sponza, AIA, LEED AP will discuss her experiences as a citizen architect and her unique perspective on impacting social change.  Carolyn is a Senior Master Planner at Gensler.  She is also chair of the AIA|DC Advocacy Committee and a member of AIA|DC’s Board of Directors.  Through her work as chair of the AIA|DC Advocacy Committee, Carolyn has engaged with the community on a variety of issues and encouraged others to follow her lead.  Carolyn graciously agreed to answer some of my questions on career development, work/family balance and community outreach.  I found her answers to be extremely helpful and look forward to Thursday’s lecture!

  • What is the best career advice that you have ever received? In regards to the question, “Can a woman architect have it all?”, the best career advice I’ve ever received is “Yes, a woman can have it all, just not at the same time.” On a daily basis, the idea of work/life balance is almost unachievable, especially in design. Either you have a work or client deadline, which you have to dedicate yourself to 100%; or you have a family responsibilities that you also have to dedicate yourself to 100%. No day can be completely balanced; you are lucky if a week is balanced between work and family. Don’t measure balance in days!
  • Would you say you ever had a mentor that made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If yes, please describe. Looking back on my career, I’ve had a lot of mentors, though not in the formal sense. When I was starting out my career, I did a variety of internships to test out different aspects of the profession. I did an internship at the National Building Museum and had a great mentor who actually taught me that the architectural world is about a lot more than architecture. It’s reminded me that I should try to mentor, even in nontraditional circumstances outside of the office.
  • Think about when you started out in the architectural field.  Now think about the new female designers just starting out. What is different now compared to when you started? Is there still a glass ceiling? If so, how can women break it? When I was in high school in the 1990’s, I attended a women’s leadership seminar where the keynote speaker lectured on the topic of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’. Coming from an educational environment where women and men were valued equally, the idea of a glass ceiling was news to me. I truly believed that professional equally existed. Now, with over 15 years of experience, I have  been in many meetings where I was the only woman, in a group of 15 or 20.
  • How do you successfully manage your family, career and public/community commitments? It’s always a crazy juggle, especially since my husband travels several days a week. When you have a family, you always have to work at the margins – off-hours (late or early) to get the ‘extra’ work done. Often, this is not when you’re not in the mood to be creative, but you have to do it anyway.
  • What have been your greatest challenges and rewards as a citizen architect? The greatest challenge is committing to a focused group of activities 100%. There are so many great organizations and efforts out there I’d like to be a part of. But there are also a limited number of hours in the day… if I can only volunteer my time, I’d like to commit completely to one thing. But I always have a list of community opportunities… you never know what will happen next.